The first thing Randidly did was to rent a larger work area. This new area was on the west side of the factory, which was largely unused. Working with so much iron ore at once made it difficult to properly melt it all, so most people preferred to use the smaller workstations. It cost $5 a day, but you would work with 20x as much ore. Not that Randidly planned on using it for much; he basically only needed the blast furnace, to add the carbon.
Aside from renting the room, Randidly also spent all $92 of his remaining money in order to buy 368 units of iron ore. Foreman Davey gave Randidly a strange look when he did it but said nothing.
Randidly went to his first unit of iron ore, smiling down at it.
“Extract,” He said, focusing on the iron within the ore. It quivered, and Randidly’s smiled turned more serious.
“Ex-tract.” Randidly emphasized, his eyes blazing. His Willpower bore down on the ore, forcing the issue. There was a crack, and the outer layer of the ore disintegrate into dust. What was left was a misshapen lump.
“Refine,” Randidly said.
This time, the metal obeyed immediately. Randidly smiled.
Hank knew something was wrong about this idyllic cabin next to a Danger Zone, but he couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on.
Problem 1: The group was never attacked. The kid, Nathan, was skipping about working on tending the small garden around the thorny cabin. The cook and his wife were tending to about a dozen different types of animals that they had domesticated and kept in a corral. The highest of those was a Level 32 Hog, which trundled back and forth, snorting in derision whenever Hank walked past.
Why were there no monsters attack this place? Was it really so easy to start a farm out here, in the borderlands?
Problem 2: Every morning, there was a pile of dead bodies waiting on the South side of the "safe area". Very quickly, Hank and his crew grew familiar with the safe area, because immediately upon walking past it there would be powerful monsters lying in wait. In fact, it seemed that whatever was acting to push the monsters away was known to them, and they seemed to be waiting there, surly.
It was dangerous hunting because the monsters in the area were strong and vicious, but they wouldn't pursue Hank's group back into the safe zone. This added an element of unpredictable security that helped a lot with the hunting.
Problem 3: The people of Zone 32 didn't seem interested in the Elixirs at all. They allowed Hank's group to bring back the bodies of monsters above Level 55, trading each for an Elixir. Even Hank participated, getting himself a Focus, Reaction, and Agility Elixir. All increased the Stat in question by 10, as predicted. Now, he was struck with the dilemma of whether to trade bodies for some of his less used stats or go with the risk of spending an Elixir and receiving nothing in return.
In the wake of Randidly's departure, Ezekiel at first seemed relieved, sinking back into his old snarky ways. But he also was driven to extremes by the offer of the Elixirs and would spend most of his days out seeking monsters to trade for them. Unlike Affina, who gradually attempted higher and higher Leveled monsters, Ezekiel always brought ones back at Level 55-57, but his hunting speed improved immensely over the days. By this point, he had used one of each of the Elixirs and was now asking for more in Intelligence and Endurance.
Based on Ezekiel’s expression, it seemed his second attempt went well, and now he seemed intent on getting at least 20 for each Stat. Hank understood the desire; after all, that would be an increase of 240 stats across the board. Already the man had a taste of that, and due to the drawbacks of his Class was especially drawn by the possibility of stats.
But they had a mission. And this place was starting to weird Hank out.
The people were nice enough, but the longer they stayed here, the more he could sense the heartbeat of a secret. One that all of the people here were protecting. Hank was curious, but these seemed like upstanding folk, and he had no need to step on toes to satisfy his curiosity.
Although Ezekiel didn’t like it, he followed Hank and the rest of the group away as they continued on towards Zone 32. It was a short break, but a timely one, as all of them grew a noticeable amount in strength for staying there.
As they were departing, the cook and his wife joined Nathan at the edge of their area to wave them off. Laurel spoke quietly as they walked away, voicing Hank’s worried thoughts. “We grew strong just staying there for three days… how strong do they have to be for this to be so? While I was there, I had no dreams, only oppressive silence from the spirits. Although we didn’t sense it… we were in the grip of something there.”
“We would know if we were strong enough,” Affina said, her expression thoughtful.
Ezekiel nodded. Hank said nothing. He simply turned and began to walk forward. One step at a time.
The purified and Refined iron ore was the easy part. The only other task he required was to mix the carbon into the metal. After all, steel was the most commonly produced and bought by the factory. Still, there were other metals trades, based on strange formulas, which could be bought at a premium, depending on how they fared in the tensile strength test.
Humming to himself, Randidly began melting 10 units of his purified iron ore in the crucible. The blast furnace smoked and spat, heat radiating off of it. It seemed to be some portal to hell then, a giant entrance to an unearthly tomb. Very quickly, the heat had reduced the metal to a liquid form. It calmly bubbled in the superheated crucible.
With a flick of the wrist, Randidly produced Acri, who was hiding up against the flesh of his right arm, lurking under the illusion around him. Randidly pointed to a giant monster femur laying on the work table in his station.
“Chop that up. Finely, please.”
Acri chirped its glee and began to slice and dice the bone with his head. Such was his sharpness that even this bone of a Level 50 monster was easily dismembered by it. Randidly turned his attention back to the molten iron before him, regarding it carefully.
Zone 1 was highly advanced, and could no doubt produce steel of a very high caliber without the use of manual labor to get it. They were prepared for the System, after all, and had set up specialty factories long before now. Still, they choosing to push for this now, accepting a inferior grade steel now, for the superior stuff that would likely come along later.
Why? Because they finally realized how weak that left him in the higher end when other people had been successfully using the System for so long.
Well, it wasn’t like Randidly couldn’t make use of his own knowledge to help them along a bit.
Acri arrived at his side, having swept all the thinly sliced shavings into a bowl. Calmly, Randidly stretched out his hand and dumped the shaving into the crucible. Then he began to use small spurts of Gravity Affinity to mix the superheated metal and monster bone together. He withdrew his hand. The flesh was burnt, and the bowl was charred, but it was a small thing, in the grand scheme of things.
Within a second, his flesh had healed. He hadn’t received a Skill Level for it, but Randidly knew it was only a matter of time. This was just the beginning.
What he hadn’t expected was that was the bone mixed with the metal, the volume of the molten liquid would actually shrink. Randidly frowned but would reserve judgment for now. But it did have the side effect of only producing 9 ingots, instead of the 10 he should have received based on the raw materials. They were slightly darker than the steel typically was, with something like a matte finish that didn’t reflect light.
Randidly picked up one of the ingots and squeezed. He smiled.
When he showed 8 of his finished ingots to Foreman Davey, The man seemed surprised. He took a long look at the metal, muttered something, and tried to bend it with his hands. Inwardly, Randidly was impressed, because he very slowly bent the ingot, then bent it back into shape. Then he flicked the metal with a fingernail.
A clear ding sounded out. Foreman Davey nodded, vaguely.
“We’ll take all 8, of course, although I’m not sure this one will hold its shape, long-term. But I wanted to test it. You pay for better recipes and mix them? This isn’t a metal I recognize.”
Randidly shrugged. “I was… a cook before I came here. I know a little bit about using the System to help mixtures along.”
“Mmm… well, it’s good metal, I’ll buy as much as you can make. What’s your name, kid?”
Randidly froze. He hadn’t thought about this and had to force out the first name that came to mind. “Baloo Erickson.”
“Well Baloo, pleasure doing business with you. I’ll buy this for $2.50 an ingot.” The two men shook hands.